So, you finally found some spare time to reupholster the dining room chairs or the flea market find that’s been collecting dust. Before you head over to a local hardware shop, you may want to make a checklist of the specific upholstery tools and protective gear needed to complete your project.
Some upholstery tools you may find in your toolbox, others are specific to the trade and may be worth investing in, especially if you plan on doing more than a one-off and want to achieve a professional look. You may not need all the tools or safety items listed below, they’re only my suggestions.
We have broken them down into three groups: 1) Must Have; 2) Nice to Have and 3) Already Have. In each group, I explain the function of the tool or gear and which upholstery projects you can complete with them.
Let’s get started
The “Must Have” list is comprised of a group of tools and protective items that are staples in the upholstery workshop. For the beginner, these are the tools you’ll want to start with and can add on as required.
1. Staple remover or Tack lifter. This trademarked tool by C.S. Osborne resembles a screwdriver but has a forked head which makes it ideal for lifting tacks or staples from chairs without damaging the frame.
2. Heavy-duty stapler. Used for uncomplicated, short-term upholstery projects when fixing material to frames. Refer to the manufacturer’s recommended staple sizes. Use a Pneumatic Air Staple Gun (see below in “Nice to Haves”) for more complex upholstery jobs or to reduce hand strain.
3. Hot-glue gun. Used primarily for placing piping. The hot glue holds the piping in place before permanently securing it using staples. When purchasing hot glue sticks, buy the best quality you can find.
4. Side cutter. Used to remove stubborn staples or tacks that your staple remover failed to lift completely. A good pair of general pliers may also do the trick and are a useful addition to your upholstery tool kit anyway.
5. Dust mask. Use a dust mask to keep that dust out of your nose and mouth. Inexpensive ones can be purchased by the pack from dollar stores but look to hardware stores for heavier duty dust masks. Note: Use a respirator when using stain or paint strippers.
6. Shears. Heavy-duty scissors or shears carry extra weight in the blade which reduces hand fatigue and cramping in extended periods of use. The additional weight also imparts extra control and smoothness. Look for 9” or 12” tailor blades. Invest in a good set of shears and be prepared to sharpen the blades regularly which will become dull with repeated use.
7. Utility gloves. Gloves will impair your dexterity for many upholstery tasks, but for stripping the old upholstery or moving bulkier pieces of furniture, they will go far in protecting your hands from splinters, cuts, and even callouses.
8. Chalk. One of a number of marking instruments that will come in handy in upholstery. Used to mark material prior to cutting. Sharpen to a point with a utility knife (see below in Have Already) for more precise marking. Tailor’s chalk, which has a waxy property and comes with honed edges, is also good to have on hand.
9. Flexible fabric tape measure. Used for measuring chair parts, some of which may be curved and require precise measurements. Also used for measuring upholstery fabric, webbing, welting, etc.
“Must Have” tools will allow you to easily upholster most Drop-in seat chairs.
“Nice to Haves” are really “Must Haves” if you plan on doing upholstery for more than just a one-off project. As always, acquire the best quality tools you can afford. Well-manufactured tools will pay for themselves over time.
10. Pneumatic air staple gun. The workhorse of the professional upholstery shop. Used to staple fabric or webbing to a frame. For beginners, look for a 71 series gun. Requires a 1 to 4-gallon air compressor and a male connector.
11. Magnetic hammer. Use the magnetic end for picking up tacks, the other end tipped with steel, for driving finishing nails into the frame. Note: Do not tap the tacks or nails with the magnetic end as this will demagnetize the head of the hammer.
12. Web stretcher. Used for gripping jute or linen webbing strips while levering the tool against the frame. Note: web stretchers are not required for rubber or elasticized webbing.
13. Rubber mallet. Used for tapping rails or frames, punching grommet holes, and snap fasteners without damaging your material or chair frame.
14. Electric turkey carver. Use in place of a foam-cutter. An electric turkey carver is an inexpensive and effective alternative when cutting and shaping foam.
15. 16″ Straight needle. Used for button tufting and most useful when you need to go straight through layers of material, foam, or batting.
16. Regulator. Used in a variety of functions, from moving stuffing around to detailing piping. One end is a sharp round point while the other is flattened to give better grip and leverage while easing the stress on the hand.
17. Upholstery pins and T pins. Used to hold fabric for machine or hand sewing or tacking.
18. Curved Needles. Used for hand stitching, blind stitching, and finishing work for creating hidden seams.
19. Adhesive spray gun. Used to apply adhesive glue spray accurately. Attaches to an air hose and requires a 1 to 4-gallon air compressor and a male connector. A cheaper alternative is adhesive spray in aerosol cans.
20. L-shaped marking square. Used for marking out, measuring, and testing the squareness of corners. They are relatively heavy, so they also aid in weighing fabric down when measuring or marking.
With “Nice to Have” tools you should be able to complete a Stuffover or Sprung stuff over the chair.
If you’re contemplating an upholstery project, chances are it’s not your first DIY project. This means that you may “Already Have” a few multi-utility tools which lend themselves nicely to upholstery.
21. Cordless drill. Used to remove and replace screws efficiently. A set of 15 to 18 drill bits should allow you to tackle most jobs.
22. Utility knife. Use to sharpen chalk and pencils to a point and for small cutting jobs.
23. Sharpie. Another marking tool that’s handy to have around. Sharpies are permanent on most surfaces so be careful what you mark with them.
24. Chisel. Used to pry stripping fabric that’s been applied with back tacking strips of cardboard.
25. Footgear. Protect your feet from errant tacks, staples, and falling objects while working on your upholstery projects.
26. Sandpaper. Use to remove material from surfaces or to make them smoother in preparation for painting or staining. Use in conjunction with steel wool for best results.
27. Apron. Used to shield yourself from dust, stain, paint, and anything else that can run afoul and land on your clothes.
28. Self-retracting tape measure. Naturally used to measure just about anything and can be easily carried in a pocket or toolkit.
29. G-clamp. Useful for securing frame repairs. It’s like having a really strong pair of hands.
30. Yardstick. Use one with imperial and metric units as some fabric dealers may use one or the other measuring system.
With “Must Have“, “Nice to Have” and “Already Have” tools, you should be able to complete most non-sewing machine upholstery projects.
Having the right tool for the right job in upholstery is very helpful and can save you a lot of time.
What’s your most valuable upholstery tool? What’s your next upholstery tool acquisition?